How has the Cargo Cult Spread Throughout the Social Sciences?

In 1974, during a graduation ceremony (Caltech’s 1974 commencement address) held in the California Institute of Technology, Richard Feynman, a physics genius and Nobel prize winner, gave an exquisite speech entitled “Cargo Cult Science. Some remarks on science, pseudoscience and learning how to not fool yourself.” Its key element was a highly symbolic comparison that left a lasting effect on the minds of men of science:

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.[1]

The great physicist did not restrict himself to the very comparison. To support his metaphorical claim, Feynman provided examples in the area of healing, psychotherapy and parapsychology. He also related his experiences with isolations tanks (sensory deprivation chambers) and made observations on education and crime:

So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down–or hardly going up–in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress–lots of theory, but no progress–in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them.[2]

Other critics of the social sciences share Feynman’s viewpoint. In point of fact, Stanislav Andreski, in his book Social Sciences as Sorcery, does not refer to practices in the social sciences as the cargo cult, however he explores the very same phenomenon:

When a profession supplies services based on well-founded Stanislav Andreskiknowledge we should find a perceptible positive connection between the number of practitioners in relation to the population and the results achieved. Thus, in country which has an abundance of telecommunication engineers, the provision of telephonic facilities will normally be better than a country which has only a few specialists of this kind. The levels of morality will be lower in countries or regions where there are many doctors and nurses than in places where there are few and far between. Accounts will be more generally and efficiently kept in countries with many trained accountants than where they are scarce. We could go on multiplying examples, but the foregoing suffice to establish the point.

And now, what are the benefits produced by sociology and psychology? … So to examine the validity of the claim that these are highly useful branches of knowledge, let us ask what their contribution to mankind’s welfare is supposed to be. To judge by the cues from training courses and textbooks, the practical usefulness of psychology consists of helping people to find their niche in society, to adapt themselves to it painlessly, and to dwell therein contentedly and in harmony with their companions. So, we should find that in countries, regions, institutions or sectors where the services of psychologists are widely used, families are more enduring, bonds between the spouses, siblings, parents and children stronger and warmer, relations between colleagues more harmonious, the treatment of recipients of aid better, vandals, criminals and drug addicts fewer, than in places or groups which do not avail themselves of the psychologists’ skills. On this basis we could infer that the blessed country of harmony and peace is of course the United States; and that ought to have been becoming more and more so during the last quarter of the century in step with the growth in numbers of sociologists, psychologists and political scientists.[3]

As much as Feynman concludes that there is no connection between efforts taken by representatives of the social sciences and the condition of the field within their main interest, Andreski takes the point further. He puts the blame to very scientists for some problems deepening on a constant basis.

It may be objected that this is no argument, that the causation went the other way round, with the increase in drug addiction, crime, divorce, race riots and other social ills creating the demand for more healers. Maybe; but even accepting this view, it would still appear that the flood of therapists has produced no improvement. What, however, suggests that they may be stimulating rather than curing the sickness is that the acceleration in the growth of their numbers began before the upturn in the curves of crime and drug addiction.[4]

Both Feynman and Andreski look into reasons of such an alarming condition of the discipline. According to the former, the transformation of science into the cargo cult has taken place mostly due to the lack of honesty on the part of investigators themselves. Honesty that should be understood in a particular manner:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it.[5]

At the same time, Feynmann cautions scientists against yielding to the temptation of self-deception:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.[6]

The failure of scientists to maintain integrity towards themselves, their peers, and those outside science, represents in Feynman’s view, the underlying reason for science turning into the cargo cult. In his study, Andreski makes a more radical point. As a sociologist by education, he argues that distortions in the image of reality stem from social factors.

Though formidable enough, the methodological difficulties appear trivial in comparison with the fundamental obstacles to the development of an exact science of society which puts it on an entirely different plane from the natural sciences: namely the fact that human beings react to what is said about them. More than that of his colleagues in the natural sciences, the position of an ‘expert’ in the study of human behaviour resembles that of sorcerer who can make the crops come up or the fall by uttering an incantation. And because the facts with which he deals are seldom verifiable, his customers are able to demand to be told what they like to hear, and will punish the unco-operative soothsayer who insists on saying what they would rather not know – as the princes used to punish the court physicians for failing to cure them. Moreover, as people want to achieve their ends by influencing others, they will always try to cajole, bully or bribe the witch-doctor into using his powers for their benefit and uttering the needed incantation … or at least telling them something pleasing. And why should he resist threats or temptations when in his speciality it is difficult to prove or disapprove anything, that he can with impunity indulge his fancy, pander to his listeners’ loves and hates or even peddle conscious lies. His dilemma, however, stems from the difficulty of retracing his steps; because very soon he passes the point of no return after which it becomes too painful to admit that he has wasted years pursuing chimeras, let alone to confess that he has been talking advantage of the public’s gullibility. So, to allay his gnawing doubts, anxieties and guilt, he is compelled to take the line of least resistance by spinning more and more intricate webs of fiction and falsehood, while paying ever more ardent lip-service to the ideals of objectivity and the pursuit of truth.[7]

Contrary to Feynman, who sees practitioners of the social sciences as victims of self-deception, Andreski builds up an image of cynical, obsequious scientist who has a personal interest in deforming reality.

The easiest way out is always not to worry unduly about the truth, and to tell people what they want to hear, while the secret of success is to be able to guess what it is that they want to hear at the given time and place. Possessing only a very approximate and tentative knowledge, mostly of the rule-of-thumb kind, and yet able to exert much influence through his utterances, a practitioner of the social sciences often resembles a witch-doctor who speaks with a view to the effects his words may have rather than to their factual correctness; and then invents fables to support what he said, and to justify his position in the society.[8]

Other critics of the social sciences are of the same mind as Feynman and Andreski. Marvin Minsky emphasizes unequivocally that to this day psychology has been unable to develop tools that would allow understanding the nature of thinking processes or consciousness.[9] Many authors disapprove of the jargon of social sciences that is frequently supposed to sound more complicated than it is necessary. By using such overblown verbosity some simply try to make impression that they do have something wise to say.[10] Karl Popper ruthlessly reproaches those scientists for such practices:

Karl Popper.jpgEvery intellectual has a very special responsibility. He has the privilege and opportunity of studying. In return, he owes it to his fellow men (or ‘to society’) to represent the results of his study as simply, clearly and modestly as he can. The worst thing that intellectuals can do – the cardinal sin – is to try to set themselves up as great prophets vis-à-vis their fellow men and to impress them with puzzling philosophies. Anyone who cannot speak simply and clearly should say nothing and continue to work until he can do so.[11]

Later in one of the forthcoming posts I will make an effort to determine which factors responsible for the transformation of social sciences into the cargo cult have played a more significant role in the process. However before I investigate the matter, let me first shed some light on how the Feynman’s metaphor, though based on observations rather than on research, has begun to live a life of its own. A Google search for the cargo cult science expression brings nearly 30 thousand hits. In majority, online texts accessed through the Internet use this term for some kind of pseudoscience or activities that are doomed to failure. Scientific data bases, such as EBSCO, also offer a high number of papers that include the “cargo cult” phrase. Just a handful of titles selected at random provide clues as to how the metaphor has been contextualized:

“Neuro-linguistic programming: Cargo cult psychology?”[12]

“Cargo cult science, armchair empiricism and the idea of violent conflict.”[13]

“The urban question as cargo cult: Opportunities for a new urban pedagogy.”[14]

“Classroom research and cargo cults.”[15]

“Environmental optimism: Cargo cults in modern society.”[16]

“Dominance theater, slam-a-thon, and cargo cults: Three illustrations of how using conceptual metaphors in qualitative research works.”[17]

“On cargo cults and educational innovation.”[18]

“Cargo-cult city planning.”[19]

“Psychology – ‘a cargo cult science’? In search of developmental psychology paradigm.”[20]

It seems that the Feynman’s metaphor has already established itself in the public domain. And though I value Feynman and his perspective on science, I decided to examine to what extent his famous comparison had been justified by the then reality and also whether his observations would be confirmed today. The outcome of my investigation will be published in one of my forthcoming posts…


[1] R. P. Feynman, “Cargo Cult Science,” Engineering and Science, 37, (June 1974): 10-13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] S. Andreski, Social sciences as sorcery, (London: Andre Deutsch, 1972), 25-26.

[4] Ibid., p. 26.

[5] Feynman, “Cargo Cult Science.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] S. Andreski, Social sciences…, p. 24.

[8] Ibid., p. 31.

[9] M. Minsky, „Smart Machines,” in Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, ed. J. Brockman (New York: Touchstone 1996), 152-166.

[10] D. Dennet, „Intuition Pumps,” in ibid., 181-197.

[11] K. Popper, In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years, (London: Routledge, 2012): 83.

[12] G. Rodrique-Davies, “Neuro-linguistic programming: Cargo cult psychology?” Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, 1, (2009): 57-63.

[13] B. Korf, “Cargo cult science, armchair empiricism and the idea of violent conflict,” Third World Quarterly”, 27, (2006): 459-476.

[14] R. Shields, “The urban question as cargo cult: Opportunities for a new urban pedagogy,” International Journal of Urban & Regional Research, 32, (2008): 712-718.

[15] E.D. Hirsch Jr., “Classroom research and cargo cults,” Policy Review, 115, (2002): 51.

[16] W.R. Catton Jr., “Environmental optimism: Cargo cults in modern society,” Sociological Focus, 8, (1975): 27-35.

[17] S. Dexter, D.R., LaMagdeleine, “Dominance theater, slam-a-thon, and cargo cults: Three illustrations of how using conceptual metaphors in qualitative research works,” Qualitative Inquiry, 8, (2002): 362.

[18] B. Starnes, “On cargo cults and educational innovation,” Education Week, 17, (1998): 38.

[19] P. Buchanan, “Cargo-cult city planning,” Architectural Review, 190, (1992): 4-8.

[20] B.M. Kaja, „Psychologia – ‘nauka kultu cargo?’ W poszukiwaniu paradygmatu psychologii wychowania,” [“Psychology – i sit a ‘science of cargo cult?’ Searching for a paradigm od educational psychology,”]. Forum Psychologiczne, 11, (2006) 42-57.


One response to “How has the Cargo Cult Spread Throughout the Social Sciences?

  1. Pingback: About the Misery of Psychology, Cargo Cult, and the Decade of Behavior | Psychology Gone Wrong·

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